Never-betters, better-nevers, and ever-wasers

Most of my posts will focus on animals, food, and environmental policy, but now and again I’m going to write about the media landscape. Unlike the other issues I’m writing about, this is a domain where I have zero academic expertise. Instead, I write as a Stumbler, a Google Reader addict, and as a teacher with a course wiki.

I recently finished reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Wu’s book is an economic history of telephony, film, radio, television, and the internet. This recent review by Reason‘s Adam Thierer got me to thinking about the last fifty pages of Wu’s book, which is where the “open-versus-closed” information models, which cycle back and forth throughout history, take on what he argues is their present iteration: Google (open) v. Apple (closed). It’s no surprise, really, that a libertarian reviewer would take claim with Wu’s reading of history: that, as a nation, we’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the political concentration of power, but have been almost completely oblivious when it comes to the economic concentration of power, especially when it comes to information systems.

The Master Switch opens with a quote from Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love: “Every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.” Never mind that the quote is spoken in the late Victorian period; This is the kind of techno-utopianism that’s on full display in the embedded video above, and is best embodied by Clay Shirky, but which also includes various forms of transhumanism. Or, as Adam Gopnik puts it, you’re either a Never-Better, a Better-Never, or an Ever-Waser. Shirky, and many others like him, are clearly Never-Betters. Gladwell’s recent skepticism is Better-Neverish, as is Evgeny Morozov’s new book, and Gopnik’s Ever-Wasism is clear when he says that “It is odd and new to be living in the library; but there isn’t anything odd and new about the library.”

Much of the buildup of Wu’s book is trying to help us understand whether the internet really is different, and what this means for society. We’ve been hearing nonstop about the (much exaggerated) death of the traditional news media and the role of Twitter/Facebook on social movements, and the fact that everyone is now an active creator and disseminator of information. (This is the many-to-many model Shirky discusses, as opposed to the one-to-many broadcast model and many-to-one response model of network television and radio.)

But what does our fragmented media landscape say about the health of our polity? Even if you agree with P.J O’Rourke that our current levels of political polarization are nothing new, our new model of media fragmentation clearly is. Yes, American newspapers (like most newspapers) have historically been openly partisan. Yes, the Cronkite era of ‘non-partisan’ nightly news might have been a veil for the dominant paradigm. But many people now get their news only from the Daily Show, NY Times and Huffpo (etc.), or only from Glenn Beck, Fox News, and Drudge (etc.). And this isn’t even the real fragmentation, which happens when we combine what Jonathan Haidt calls our five moral universals with digital tribalism in the age of Seth Godin. I’ve talked with my students about pros and cons of the ‘many weak bonds’ model of social capital (as against the traditional ‘few strong bonds’ model), and it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Arguably, things weren’t all that different in the past (‘there isn’t necessarily anything odd and new about the library’), but people now have more and more ways to learn about the strengths of their chosen arguments without understanding that the other side(s) has a point too.

I’ll be teaching J.S. Mill’s On Liberty tomorrow (“he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”), which brings me back to a ever-increasing concern of mine: our media habits tend more and more to sacrifice depth in favor of breadth. I’m happy I grew up when I did, for example, because it allowed me the childhood peace of mind (in the ’80s and ’90s) to engage deeply with complete written texts, but has since allowed me to surf the mediasphere at a rate of almost 1k Reader feeds a day.

I think everyone has a bit of the Never-Better, Better-Never, and Ever-Waser in them, and I may just be showing my Better-Never side here, but I worry that minds raised on information overload don’t have the necessary filters to process that information into cogent and useful mental building blocks. Why bother learning anything if it’s all at the touch of a fingertip? Without that steady, methodical evaluation of complex systems of thought, critical thinking inevitably loses out.

On the other hand, the potential for collaborative production in the internet age is enormous, as most of the above links (and billions of others!) demonstrate. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


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